The Invisible Woman

It’s International Women’s Day, and like on so many other days, I have been thinking about superpowers (one of my favourite topics). In particular, about invisibility. Because it can be an awesome superpower, and it can also be devastating, and all this has a lot to do with women in science. But let me explain. 

First of all, why are we talking about women in science? It is a common belief that sexism in science no longer exists. This belief is false. It is true that we have come a long way in the last decades. But it is still the case that science professors (of both genders) would rather appoint male graduates than females with the exact same qualifications (and offer them a higher salary too), that they reply more often to e-mails from male than from female students, that in turn, female professors are more likely to get poorer ratings from their students, and that students think their male peers are smarter than their female peers. Code written by female coders on github is slightly more likely to be accepted by the community – unless, that is, they identify themselves as female coders. (You can find some of the references and other materials on my diversity in academia pinterest board).

Together, a picture emerges where at every stage of a women’s scientific career, people seem to perceive her as less competent than they would a male colleague, and they act accordingly. I am not even talking about active harassment. I am talking about those small differences in perception and action that add up over time. A single professor who doesn’t reply to your e-mail is not a big deal, of course, but in the long run, it all adds up to more attention, more recognition, more opportunity (and in the long run more money, more power, more success) for male scientists. And quite a lot of frustration for female scientists.

What can we do about this? Two solutions spring to my mind. As far as I can see, they are both equally valid, but they are somewhat contradictory.

The first solution is invisibility. The thinking behind it is this: It is difficult for us to control our unconscious biases, so we should take whatever chance we have to trick ourselves into being more balanced and rational. This can mean removing names and other gender identifiers from CVs before we rate prospective job candidates,  marking student work blindly,  or setting up anonymised systems for reviewing papers or applications.

This has been successful in other areas. As far back as in 1920, entries in architecture competitions were graded anonymously, allowing the young Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky to win some of them, even though at the time, people found it hard to imagine that a women would ever be tasked with building a house. More recently, the number of women in US orchestras has risen substantially since blind auditions were introduced. Of course, the news has yet to reach Vienna, where some people still seem to think that nice-sounding music can only be produced by men (or, more specifically, white men).

This does not only apply to evaluating other people’s work, but also to furthering our own. For instance, we can reduce the risk of being affected by other people’s gender bias by only using our initials on publications, or by removing our picture from our research website. Here again, many women have been there before us. The Brontë sisters originally published their novels using male pseudonyms. In the early 1800s,  Margaret Ann Bulkley dressed as a man in order to study (and later practice) medicine. And by using her initials on the registration form, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967.

So, invisibility (or at least, gender-invisibility) truly is a superpower, and can be harnessed both for our own success and to increase fairness towards others. Excellent. Now let’s talk about the second solution I came up with.

The second solution is to do the exact opposite. Make women in science visible. The thinking behind it is this: Prejudices against women (and other minorities) in science spring from unexamined and deeply held beliefs about what a scientist is. If we have a particular picture of a scientist in our head, then we will find it more difficult to see people who don’t conform to this picture as “true” (legitimate, competent, good-at-what-they’re-doing) scientists. And this is not only a personal thing. There is, I think, a culturally widespread picture of what a “typical” scientist looks like. By making those who do not conform to the picture invisible, what we actually do is reinforce the picture. What we should do instead is change the picture. There is a lovely example of this, where children were asked to draw scientists and write a short little blurb about what a scientist is. Then they went to visit Fermilab and got to talk to some scientists, and then they repeated the drawing exercise. You can see the picture change, not only from male to female and from old to younger, but also from “crazy genius” to “normal person”. The point is, people need to see that scientists come in all shapes and sizes and genders etc.  Once they do that, it will be easier for them to accept a scientist who is, say, female. (Or not wearing a lab coat. Or good at sports.) Luckily, there are a lot of great initiatives that attempt to do just that, make diversity in science visible in order to challenge preconceived thoughts of what scientists should and shouldn’t be. We need to be seen doing what we’re doing while being who we are. And the more that happens, the likelier it is to shift the general perception. This can only mean one thing: Visibility is a superpower.

This leads, of course, to a dilemma: Hiding my gender identity can lead to my work being taken more seriously by people who are prejudiced against women in science. But showing my gender identity can lead to that very prejudice being eroded in the long term. So, which is it going to be?

Unfortunately, deciding on the right direction to take is not one of my superpowers.




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